What? The mysterious protagonist?
Whatever the heck is that?
How can a protagonist be a mystery to readers?
The unwritten rule in fiction is that the reader must know the lead character of the story. They need to know them to relate to them.
This narrative rule is assumed to be understood by any writer worth their salt. In fact, not just in novels, but even in movies, we have seen the rule being applied.
See how the hero enters with a bang, revealing at least a few things about him—like his job, his identity, or where he comes from.
The heroine, entering with a flick of the hair, a swing of the hips, revealing herself in at least some aspect.
In a novel, your male or female or trans hero is doing something that gives away a little bit about them. Since I am a crime novelist, let me give an example of a thriller.
Your male protagonist is a cop chasing a serial killer. Your female lead is a magazine editor, working in her AC office on her laptop, or launching the latest issue at a social function (I am taking examples from actual books, but the cop can be a woman and the editor, a man).
No, you don’t learn about the protagonist all at once. As the story progresses, you come to know them. But generally, I’ve noticed that within three to four chapters, you’re pretty well acquainted with who your protagonist is.
He is a cop, divorced and sees his kid every once in a while. She is the Chief Editor of a feminist magazine, still reeling from a breakup with her philandering boyfriend.
The author always attempts to familiarize the reader with the principal characters, whether the story is plot-based or character-based, depending on the genre.
The reader is made to build an image of the character in their mind—an image which will stick for the duration of their reading the book, and which might explain a lot later on in the story.
He’s Harry Potter, a peculiar boy with a scar on his head. He can talk to snakes, and he doesn’t act like a Muggle kid. He lives with his abusive uncle and aunt, and not his parents. Later on, the plot provides the reason—Harry is a wizard, and his parents have been killed by the evil Lord Voldemort.
If your plot needs to be engaging to keep the reader engaged, you need to introduce your protagonist so that the reader can ‘relate’ to them. Being able to identify with your lead character will be one of the most important things for readers, whom you will often find critical of novels whose protagonists they couldn’t ‘identify’ with.
Readers want to feel they have something in common with the hyper-intelligent and diffident Sherlock. They want to like the eccentric and egotistical Hercule Poirot. They too want to be able to solve mysteries, no matter if they are amateurs.
Engaging plot. Likeable protagonist.
But what if I don’t put my protagonist on display?
What if, in a murder mystery, my protagonist is part of the mystery?
No, it’s not like I’ll keep you completely in the dark about them. You will meet my protagonist, but through their actions, rather than something I tell you about them. Then, it is up to you to take a guess as to who they are.
Which means, chapter after chapter, you will go my protagonist on a journey, as they move from point A to point B to C, and so on. Without essentially knowing them, you will see the world through their eyes. You will try to feel what they feel, hear what they hear, face the danger they face, fight for high stakes. You will either hate them or root for them.
You are not just guessing how the plot will end, but also trying to fathom what the protagonist might be thinking, or what their next move will be. Apart from, let’s say, who the killer is and why they were killing, you will also be waiting to learn why the protagonist is who they are. Their own motivations and desires might be part of the big reveal.
No, I’m not saying that the character will be a complete mystery. Readers will know what is important to form an image of the protagonist. They will relate in at least some way to the character— they will think they know a little about their immediate goals and motivations, learn what is at stake, be a part of the overall plot as it moves forward.
But in the end, the reveal will throw up something the reader had never expected—a revelation which countermands the image the reader has already built, belies their evaluation of the protagonist, proves wrong every extrapolation for their motives and thought process the reader has made.
In short, the climax will not just lift the curtains on the culprit, but the protagonist as well.
You think you had him figured out…but you really didn’t.
Keeping the protagonist as something of a mystery can be a potent plot tool for thriller writers seeking to double the thrill factor for their readers.
I, for one, am trying it with my next novel, a pulpy crime thriller.
Prachi Sharma is a clinical pharmacist, researcher, aspiring neuroscientist, medical writer and academic editor, as well as a published author of three novels, including The Alphabet Killer, The Dark Side of Innocence, When He Remembered, and several short stories on platforms like Juggernaut, freelance editor and content writer. She has three upcoming books as well. She is currently based in Mumbai.